If you ask me…
by Tom Holehan
The Body of an American
Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson finds his greatest fame becomes a living hell in “The Body of an American”, the new play by Dan O’Brien currently on the boards at Hartford Stage. This beautifully staged but emotionally chilly work is a co-production with Primary Stages in New York and will move later next month to off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre.
“The Body of an American” refers to the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph that Paul Watson (Michael Cumpsty) took in 1993 of a dead American soldier in Mogadishu. Watson gained much notoriety, but the photographer became haunted by the words he claims to have heard the soldier say to him when he took the picture, “If you do this, I will own you forever”. In a parallel story the playwright (played by Michael Crane) is conflicted with his own ghosts while writing a play and reaches out to Watson for help. The drama charts their journey and growing friendship as each learns from the other to achieve some kind of peace.
Under Jo Bonney’s fluid direction and clocking in at a taut 90-minute running time, “The Body of an American” reminded me of Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” which covered similar themes about the responsibilities of photojournalists and the effects of war and its aftermath on those directly involved. But Margulies brought more humanity and wit to his story where O’Brien seems to keep us at a distance relaying far more “tell” than “show” here. As written, the character of Watson is off-putting with his false bravado and aggressive machismo. Cumpsty is a fine actor, but seems miscast and uncomfortable, working too hard and often unconvincingly to make us understand this complicated, distant man.
Both actors play several characters throughout the drama but only Mr. Crane truly seems to immerse completely into each role giving them substance and stature. In portraying the playwright, in particular, he succeeds in detailing the complexity of the part and his growing friendship with the difficult Watson. Ultimately, however, the play’s most successful scene may be its final one which at long last brings Watson in contact with the soldier’s family members. Crane is superb playing the soldier’s brother here, but the scene, itself, comes too late in the game to ultimately make “The Body of an American” a truly satisfying work.
Best about the drama may be its physical production impressively rendered by scenic designer Richard Hoover. A fragmented map hangs upstage and serves as backdrop for Alex Basco Koch’s truly superior projection design. The lighting (Lap Chi Chu) and sound (Darren L. West) also complement the proceedings brilliantly as the play travels the globe with only two simple black chairs as props. In the end, “The Body of an American” is a work of many talented artists that impresses but rarely engages the viewer fully.
“The Body of an American” continues at Hartford Stage through January 31, 2016. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: ww.hartfordstage.org.